The fundamental failure of the Arab world to understand the significance of communications, public relations and now the internet has served to undermine Arab causes and allow their enemies to thrive.
This failure is most obvious to Palestinians, who watch in amazement as Israel exploits every aspect of communications to promote its false narratives and libel of the Palestinian cause. Meanwhile, Palestinians and Arabs remain in their ineffective, traditional comfort, sipping from tiny porcelain cups of kahwah arabiyya (Arab coffee), believing that all the evils and injustices of the world will right themselves on their own.
While the Arabs and indeed the Palestinian cause have moved from finjan kahwah (cups of coffee) to hookahs and smoked-filled cafes, the Israelis have expanded their massive propaganda campaigns from traditional newsprint to the internet.
I addressed this phenomenon – the failure of the Arab world to grasp the significance of strategic communications – more than 35 years ago in a small booklet entitled “The Arab-Israeli War on the Internet”. The pamphlet analysed how Israel was expanding its presence on the internet, from traditional news media such as newspapers, TV and radio and instead making its propaganda available to the widest possible audiences in Hebrew, Arabic and English on the “Internet Super Highway”.
Back then, the internet wasn’t websites. It consisted of cumbersome chat rooms and Listserves with long, difficult-to-spell URL addresses. These Listserve sites offered basic menus of information, mainly through universities accessible to the general public. Even then, the Israelis were all over it like wild mint spreading rapidly through an unkempt vegetable garden.
Likewise today Israel is all over the internet, spreading propaganda in a strategic manner and poisoning the mind of the public – including younger generations – with propaganda, lies and deceptions that promote Israel and denigrate Palestine, Muslims and the Arab world, in that order.
The Arab world, and the Palestinians in particular, have always had nothing.
In its early days, the internet was barely noticeable to political elites in the Arab world, but it was quickly recognised as important by Israel, which clearly has a much more complex understanding of public relations and strategic communications. To Israel, the internet is just another way to reach people and influence what they believe – they have been on top of the trends while the Arabs, who shunned traditional news media, have also ignored the fundamental significance of the internet.
What I mean is that the internet is viewed in two ways in the Arab world. Firstly, activists see the internet as their only method of circumventing not only the biases of mainstream news media but as a weapon against their own governments. Often, Arab activists are more critical of other Arabs, and especially the Palestinian leadership, than they are of Israel.
The leaders of the Arab world, however, view the internet as little more than a potential threat. Many of those leaders who need the internet as a means of influencing public opinion on serious issues like Palestine don’t use it, while other Arab leaders who are on the outskirts of the Israel-Palestine conflict have huge Twitter followings but rarely use it to counter Israel’s propaganda and lies.
Nine Arab leaders are among the top 50 most popular accounts on Twitter. They include Sheikh Mohammed of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Queen Rania of Jordan, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan of the UAE, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt and Saad Hariri of Lebanon. Hariri is one of the only Arab leaders to use Twitter as a means of influencing public attitudes, thought he does so mainly only on issues related to Lebanon. Queen Rania has 10.4 million followers.
Why should they, I guess? Palestine is, apparently, no longer an Arab world priority.
Ironically Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is probably the one Arab leader who needs to do a better job using the media and internet to advocate for Palestinian rights, only has 270 followers in Arabic and no English account.
Yet even when a Palestinian leader has a strong social media presence, the posts are narrowly focused towards Arab audiences. Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi has more than 73,000 followers on Twitter, while his colleague Ayman Odeh has 58,000 followers. Both post mostly in Hebrew, directing their comments to Israelis and not to the audience that needs to hear their voices the most – English-speaking Westerners, especially those in America who hold the purse strings of peace and justice.
Compare that to the massive social media and internet presence that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has. Haaretz recently did an analysis of his social media strategy and, not surprisingly, described it as “an empire”.
Netanyahu broadcasts messages using every social media network including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Telegram, and does so in several languages including Hebrew, English, Arabic and Farsi. His Arabic Twitter account has 114,000 followers. Netanyahu’s Facebook page has 2.3 million followers.
He doesn’t just have one account. He has many and each has a different purpose. Netanyahu promotes his most important messages using funds from the Israeli government, his political campaign and his personal finances. He spends more than 50,000 NIS ($13,500) each month just to promote his personal messages on Facebook.
Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders are using social media the same way they used the traditional news media – to spread their narrative and undermine their enemies, including libelling the truth of the Palestinian narrative. Israel is taking that one step further on social media, using posts by civilians it oppresses and occupies as evidence of “sedition” to jail its critics. Nearly 500 Palestinians have been arrested because of posts Israel asserts “incite violence”.
The Arab world has long taken the traditional news media for granted, viewing it only as a source of negative impact rather than as a system that can be exploited, managed and even used as a counter-force against enemies.
It is therefore not surprising that they see social media only as a potential threat, rather than as a weapon that can be used to confront and counter Israel’s aggressively-inaccurate propaganda and false narratives. At some point, we have to accept that the failures of the Palestinians to confront Israel’s lies has much to do with the manner in which they attempt to confront those lies, not with the facts used to expose them.
Instead of just publishing their newspapers in Arabic, Arabs should be publishing them in English and delivering them to Western audiences. They should be buying up struggling Western newspapers and injecting them, not only with cash to stabilise them but with reporters who have a real commitment to accuracy.
The Arab world should “own” the New York Times and the Washington Post as publishers, not allowing them and others to serve as platforms for anti-Palestinian propaganda, as they so often are. It might be too late to control the traditional print media, but they still have time to take the power of social media far more seriously, not just as platforms to promote themselves but as weapons in a sophisticated and very effective war that Israel continues to win.